Book Report: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I have rarely experienced so intensely the feeling, after finishing the book, of not wanting to leave its confines. In this case, my desire to stay in 18th century Nagasaki was so intense that even though I finished the book about two weeks ago I’ve been unable to start reading anything new; any other set or scenery just bores me after a few pages. I have the same feeling whenever I finish something by Jean Giono (report forthcoming) – leaving his mythical world of Provence after diving so deeply into it is jarring to the system. Similarly, reading something like Anna Karenina, which envelops you for hundreds of pages in its cloak of wintry Russian aristocracy, is hard to leave behind. I think that might be the highest praise you can give any book.
But this novel is hardly perfect; and it’s not Mitchell’s best as far as I’m concerned. His capturing of feudal Japan and Dutch customs is pitch perfect; his world is constructed so deeply and with such detail that it is immediately believable, and in fact is the sustaining force of the book. You have to remind yourself every so often that you’re reading a work of fiction.
The flaw lies more in the narrative. And not exactly in the story itself, but in the way it’s told. Throughout the novel, Mitchell resolutely refuses to give any sort of conclusion to his stories. I get that Mitchell is a Post Modernist, or whatever you want to call it, and that giving narrative structure a bit of a jolt is his thing. In fact this is why I read his books. It’s why I listen to bands like Sonic Youth. It can be exhilarating to find resolution in something outside convention. But even his novel Cloud Atlas, the poster-child for the disjointed narrative, gives each of its stories, and the novel as a whole, grand conclusions that are all the more satisfying for having thought, throughout the book, what if these stories don’t end themselves? where the heck is this whole thing going? That suspense makes each wave of resolution and illumination all the more wonderful. Here, with a number of plot points relegated to mere passing mentions after Mitchell has already moved on to the next story, I felt more annoyed – annoyed that I had invested my time in a story that was tossed aside so easily.
And this is indeed a book of many narratives, with a middle section that is a full story on its own, bearing little resemblance to the sections that precede and follow it. While the middle story itself is good – very good – I found myself wondering why it had been just wedged in there. By the end of the book its relationship to the overall plot becomes clear, but I spent a lot of time thinking, OK, this is good, but when are we going to get back to the story? Which does nothing but distract from the actual reading. The first section, introducing Jacob and his plight, takes a long time to build. It seemed like an awful lot of reading to be moved aside in favor of another story entirely, with Jacob only being revisited again at the end of the book. Maybe if the book didn’t have Jacob de Zoet’s name in the title, I’d feel better about it? I guess if you see a guy’s name in the title, you expect the book to be about him.
For a book titled with one character’s name, Jacob’s, I never felt like I really got to know him very well, or understand his motives. Things just kept happening to him, and he kept doing things, but I never quite got why. He’s Dutch, OK; Christian, got it; a bit conflicted about his life away from the Netherlands, alright; fiery red hair, check. OK, so? I never got the hang of Jacob, at least until the very end. And, without giving away too much, I felt that the central relationship in the story wasn’t based on much. Which may have been the point, I don’t know. But I found it hard to relate to the characters and their emotional bond.
All of this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book. But I did! Like I said at first, Mitchell immerses you in the world of 18th century Japan so completely that you nearly forget yourself as you’re reading it. He is as always a masterful writer, and between choosing the boring way to say something and the poetic way of saying something, he always chooses the latter. His writing is full of life and he’s never afraid to take chances on style or language. And while he adopts some odd stylistic flairs here and there, you never feel that he relies on one style too heavily. He’s a writer focused on illumination, with each sentence bent to that goal.
All those things I spent most of this post talking about – they tend to fall away in the face of quality writing, and Mitchell has plenty of that left in him. In addition, I felt the ending more than made up for the jarring storytelling in the rest of the book, although even then not everything seemed to come together as I had hoped it would. If I had to pick a Mitchell book for people to read it would be Cloud Atlas 100% of the time. But if you’ve already read that, this would be a good next step.